WASHINGTON (AP) – Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, one of the last unapologetic liberals left in Congress and known among his friends as a “pied piper of modern politics,” died Friday in a Minnesota plane crash. He was 58.
Wellstone's wife, Sheila Ison Wellstone, and daughter Marcia also died in the crash. Three campaign staff members and two pilots also perished.
When Congress voted overwhelmingly earlier this month to authorize military force against Iraq, Wellstone was the only senator facing a tough re-election challenge to vote no.
Outspoken and opinionated, Wellstone was popular among his colleagues in the Senate and back at home in Minnesota. “He was the pied piper of modern politics – so many people heard him and wanted to follow him in his fight. His loss is monumental,” said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
Wellstone also was known for his sense of humor. When he made a brief and futile run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1998, he said conspiratorially to an Associated Press reporter that he really didn't think he had a chance to win. The reporter asked why, and Wellstone whispered: “I'm short, I'm Jewish and I'm a liberal.”
A former champion 126-pound wrestler from the University of North Carolina, he announced earlier this year that he suffered from a mild form of multiple sclerosis, evidenced by a pronounced limp when walked around the Capitol and the Senate chamber.
He often was the last person in the Senate chambers at night, giving speeches and advocating his position late into the evening long after most others had gone home.
Wellstone led crusades against bills he felt put the average Americans at a disadvantage. He railed against still-to-be-enacted bankruptcy reforms that enjoy overwhelming support in Congress as benefiting only banks, credit card issuers, automobile finance companies and retailers at the expense of people who “now find themselves in brutal economic circumstances.”
“Are single women with children deadbeats? This bill assumes that they are,” Wellstone said before voting against the Senate measure in July.
Before becoming a senator, Wellstone was a professor and community organizer. He fused the two together in a course he taught at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., called “Social Movements and Grassroots Organizing.”
Using the lessons from that class, Wellstone launched a longshot bid for Senate in 1990. He toured the state in a rickety old green bus that became a metaphor for his campaign, and stunned the political establishment by knocking off Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz.
In seeking re-election this year, Wellstone reneged on his pledge of 1990 to seek no more than two terms, leading some people to suggest that Washington had changed him.
Labeled by a magazine, Mother Jones, as “the first 1960s radical elected to the U.S. Senate,” Wellstone still manage to disappoint liberal followers on occasion. In 1996, he angered gay rights supporters by voting for the “Defense of Marriage” bill, which allowed states to withhold legal recognition of same-sex unions from other states.
Last year, he disappointed some civil rights and civil liberties activists by voting for legislation broadening the government's authority to conduct wiretaps in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat often compared to Wellstone, was the only senator to vote against it.
His vote against the Iraqi resolution was reminiscent of his 1996 campaign, when he was the only senator up for re-election to vote against welfare reform legislation. Wellstone wound up defeating Boschwitz in a rematch that year, 50 percent to 41 percent.
But Wellstone said he hasn't changed his core values on issues ranging from education to affordable housing to labor rights. “I'm on fire on all those conditions and determined to make a difference,” Wellstone said. Wellstone also had two sons, David and Mark, and six grandchildren.
Copyright © 2002 The Associated Press